Before we talk about essential oils, let’s talk about wine. I don’t drink wine any more, I have never liked it, and now don’t drink any alcohol, but I do know that wine comes in a huge range of qualities (and prices), flavours, brands, etc. You can get your cheap plonk, Lambrusco for £2.50 from Tesco, or your Chateau Margaux, which will set you back 6-figures! And in fact now, the much-maligned Lambrusco is making a comeback and you can get some more upmarket, better quality Lambrusco, did you know that? Let’s look into that a little tiny bit before going back to essential oils.
Lambrusco. Extremely high yields, huge industrial-level production, has led to it being so widely available, that the majority of people regard it as poor quality, cheap and, to wine connoisseurs, even ‘nasty’. Vines grown closely together, with lots of grapes near each other lowers the quality of the wine. I have no idea why. But it does. However, producers of Lambrusco are changing their extraction methods, and adding in some aging processes to make the wine more upmarket and a better quality. Oh and Lambrusco is made in the Emilia-Romagna area in Italy. Why is it not made anywhere else? Because it is the climate, soil, elevation, and a whole other host of reasons that means that the vine species used to grow the grapes to make the wine that makes it unique to that region, much like it is only the Champagne region of France that can produce what we know as champagne.
Let’s get back to essential oils – 10 Factors of EO Quality
OK so we have looked at wine, and some of the factors that can affect the quality of wine, and also the huge difference in quality, availability and price of it too. Now, keep that thought in your head when we now talk about essential oils. Where they come from matters. How they are extracted matters. How they are grown matters. And this is why you get a huge variety of oils, aromas, prices, qualities, just like you can get with wine. We will now explore 10 factors now that can determine the quality of essential oils. Some of these are controllable factors, and some of them are non-controllable factors. OK, here goes.
1. The BIGGIE – Natural or synthetic
OK, so I am pretty sure this actually doesn’t come up with wine, but with essential oils it is huge. Yes, it is true. There are many, many, many essential oils out there that are synthetic, or natural that contain synthetic constituents. These are not good for you to inhale, put on your body or otherwise. Synthetic is not good, natural is good. It is quite simple, and unfortunately, because there are no regulations with essential oils in terms of labelling etc, something could be called an essential oil, and not one bit of it has ever come from a plant. It could have been completely recreated in a lab to smell and look like an authentic essential oil, but it is completely fake OR you could have a partially natural oil that includes synthetic oil too. Well, if you are looking to use essential oils to support your health and wellbeing, guess what? These fake crappy oils are not going to do a thing for you. Yes, they may be cheap, because they have been mass-produced in a lab, but they are a waste of money if you are buying them for anything other than to fragrance stuff. They could be irritating to the skin, eyes, mucous membranes. Would you want to use them on your children? On yourself? No. You wouldn’t. So don’t buy synthetic rubbish.
2. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
A sensationalised title, because I couldn’t think of a way to head this section up, but I think this is the one I find most disappointing in the essential oil industry, so I am going with the sensationalist approach. So, you know that Rose oil you can buy for £40? Well, chances are you are paying way over the odds for Geranium with a hint of Rose oil in it. You are being duped into buying Geranium, because when you add it to Rose, it enhances the smell of it, and you would think it is Rose oil. Oh, and it can say 100% pure essential oil on it, right? Because in the bottle it is 100% pure essential oil. It just isn’t 100% ROSE essential oil (by the way, bottles can be labelled 100% pure and it be a lie too, see above!). You may have Lavender oil diluted with Lavandin, its cheaper cousin, or Peppermint actually not even being Peppermint, but Cornmint which is much, much cheaper, and not a great quality of oil, but it smells minty right? So it must be Peppermint?! And then you get the really cheeky companies that pre-dilute their oils with a carrier oil – still 100% pure oil, right? But not 100% pure essential oils as we expect them to be.
Right, they are the 2 main biggies that you may or may not be aware of that can affect what you are actually buying, but the fine art of essential oil quality goes a lot deeper, and my aim is to open your eyes to why not all oils are equal, even the ones that are actually genuinely 100% pure essential oils. So, the last 8 factors actually apply to oils that are completely natural, are what they say they are, but can still be a poor or high quality oil.
There are 39 known varieties of lavender. All are aromatic in nature, and all could and are used to produce essential oils. So this in itself, hopefully, can help you to see why not all Lavender oils are the same. The most common Lavender oils you will find are true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), lavender stoechas (Lavandula stoechas), spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) and lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia). Lavandula angustifolia is the most common in essential oils, and it is the only edible variety of lavender. Therefore, when some people are asking why doTERRA’s oils can be ingested, the species of plant used is important in answering this.
4. Climate & Location
These are 2 different factors, but I am going to group them together, so I don’t repeat myself in the answers. And I am going to stick with Lavender to continue showing how even essential oils from different companies can differ. So let’s stick with oil from the Lavandula angustifolia species, and look at how it can still be different for a whole variety of reasons.
Lavender is quite a hardy plant. You can grow it pretty much anywhere where there is reasonable sun, and rainfall. It is native to the European and Mediterranean regions, and grows in the USA, in the UK, in France, Bulgaria, New Zealand and many other areas in the world. However, just like our wine example, the amount of rainfall, hours of sun light, the temperature, the humidity, all contribute to the chemistry of the plant, and therefore determines the quality of the chemistry of the essential oils. One of the main chemical constituents of Lavender essential oil are esters, and the therapeutic benefits of esters are that it is calming, even sedative. So, in Bulgaria, for example, the ester content is much higher than it is in UK or USA grown Lavender, and so if you are looking to use the oil for aiding your sleep, or for calming, Bulgarian Lavender will do that a better than UK Lavender.
Let’s also look at Cardamom for a minute. Cardamom is found growing indigenously in several locations around the world, India being one of them, Africa and Guatemala being other regions. Cardamom is well known for its respiratory and digestive support functions, and this is thanks to the Terpinyl Acetate (respiratory) and 1.8-Cineole (digestive) molecules found in it. However, as you can see from this table, the levels of these molecule vary hugely between regions.
So, if you bought a Cardamom oil from the India 2 region expecting it to aid your respiratory issues, it ain’t gonna do nothing! But it will be really good for your digestive issues. And if you cross the country, and get it from India 1, that isn’t going to do both either, well, it may help your digestive issues a little bit, but will you see much of a result from under 10% 1.8-cineole? I don’t know, but I know the table shows what it could be. So, if you were looking to source an oil from one of these 4 regions to sell to your customers so they got an oil that did what they expected it to do, where would you source it from? Yep, you got it – Guatemala. And when you find that Guatemalan oil is great for both, and that Guatemalan growers and distillers had been greatly swindled by middlemen, would you look to form an exclusive partnership with those growers and distillers, so you became the only company in the world that had access to this balance of chemistry and quality of oil? Yep, you would. And that is what doTERRA does. Check out the Cardamom sourcing information here.
5. Environmental threats
The amount of environmental threats a plant is exposed to can affect the quality of the essential oil the plant produces. This can actually be, to an extent, linked to climate, because it can include rainfall, sun, and temperature too – and some plants thrive in extreme conditions. However, it is much bigger than that.
One of the reasons plants produce essential oils is for protection – against environmental threats. So if you grow plants in a greenhouse, or huge polytunnel tents, then that is not a natural environment for the plant, and while it will still naturally produce essential oils, the threat is lowered, and so the strength of those oils will not be as high, and the chemistry may be reduced, or altered. So it may still smell the same, but it doesn’t necessarily do the same thing. Also, using pesticides means that there are fewer threats to the plant – no pests – so this can actually even stop a plant from producing essential oils. Now, while doTERRA does not certify its oils as organic (find out why here), it will not sell oils that have been distilled from plants where pesticides have been used. The chemical testing that it undertakes ensures that all of their oils are free of all contaminants, heavy metals and other things found in pesticides.
So, let’s now look at Rose essential oil. It is expensive. Not only because you need 105lbs of rose petals to create one 5ml bottle, but also because aphids, they love Rose oil. So the best solution is to grow it in a polytunnel or use pesticides… which creates… a weaker chemistry of the oil. So yes, you may be able to buy Rose oil from other companies, but what is its quality (if it is completely Rose oil, that is!)? doTERRA actually doesn’t sell Rose oil – it cannot get enough of it grown from plants grown in indigenous regions, out in the fresh air, without pesticides. It is too costly to produce sustainably in that way. However, currently, you can get it from doTERRA for free in an annual promotion it runs, which is great!
6. Quality and health of the plant
This makes me think of my brown thumb. The plants I raise are terrible in quality, and actually die most of the time! But the quality of the plant, how well it has been cared for, and how healthy it is when it is harvested for essential oil distillation is all paramount to the quality of the essential oils you can get from it. A diseased apple tree will either not produce apples, or will produce bad apples. Same with other plants. Simple.
7. Plant maturity
The age of the plant when it is harvested for distillation is also important. I was going to use lamb and mutton as an example of differences in age, but let’s stick with plants. Lettuces. You can get baby lettuces that are green and sweeter, or older lettuces that are a bit less sweet and have darker leaves. They taste different, right? And what about blackberries. I love blackberries and we are going blackberry picking tomorrow, but you can bet my children will pick some green ones (they are really not good for eating at all!), some bright pink ones – they are still really sour, and some dark coloured blackberries that have still not ripened as much as they could have done and although they look right, they don’t taste right. And then you will get the beautifully sweet blackberries that are a delight to eat. So timing makes all the difference in blackberry picking, and it makes the difference in essential oils too.
We are going to look at Vetiver now. The roots of the Vetiver plant are what the oil is made from, and to get a really good, well-rounded Vetiver essential oil, those roots need to grow for at least 16-18 months. Most essential oil brokers are not prepared to wait for a crop to mature that long, and industry demands often put pressure on growers to harvest immature plants to make oils quicker so they can earn money quicker. A major part of this is that actually those middlemen keep most of the money and give the distillers and growers very little, so they have to produce a lot of oil to provide even the most basic of provisions for their families. Vetiver grows natively in Haiti, and these people are already very poor. doTERRA has created a Co-Impact Sourcing initiative in Haiti and has taken away that financial pressure, so that the Vetiver can be grown to maturity, and therefore they get a better, more-rounded essential oil.
8. Part of the plant
Let’s return to our beloved Lavender essential oil. The plant yields oil in abundance in its calyx, corolla and leaves. In other words its petals and leaves. It also produces oil in lower quantities in the flower stalks and branches. The best quality oil comes from the flowers only.
When a plant is harvested, and how, can also affect the quality of the essential oil that is produced. Not only does this include the time of day… yes, even that can affect it, and each plant is different – some need to be harvested in the full sun, some early in the morning, some at dusk, because plants change throughout the day too! Also, the stage in the plant’s lifecycle is also important. Going back to the Lavender again (and I do this because it is the most widely used oil so I want everyone to know how even Lavender can vary greatly), the best essential oils can be distilled when the whole head of flowers are fully open. Again, some companies may not wait this long – it takes longer then to get the oils on the shelves and turning a profit!
With Frankincense, the oil is extracted from the resin which is gathered when the trees are ‘milked’ – the trunks are scored, and the plant ‘bleeds’ resin, that then dries and is harvested. Depending on which ‘milking’ round it is, determines the essential oil quality. And sometimes, those trees have to rest (which means a break in earning for the producers). One of the things I love about doTERRA – they love the quality of oils and they respect the plants that produce them. They have literally just paid their Frankincense growers $1m to not harvest Frankincence for a while (don’t worry, they have enough in supply!) so that the trees can rest and then resume producing top quality essential oils for us.
10. Extraction method
Finally, I am going to look briefly at extraction methods. Some oils are extracted using solvents. Rose is one that is commonly extracted using solvents, resulting in a Rose Otto. Do I need to address the downsides of using solvents (hint: they add chemicals such as hexane, acetone, di-methylene-chloride, and this means that oils are unlikely to be useful therapeutically)? Hopefully not. Steam distillation is widely used, and the temperature at which this is controlled can determine the level of molecules that result, because heating anything changes its chemical state (think back to your chemistry lessons), so care needs to be taken in this process, but higher temperatures produce more oils (therefore that makes it cheaper because you get more for the same plant biomass, or increases the profitability, whichever way you want to look at it. Cynical me…). Citrus oils are cold-pressed, and there is also a newer method called hydro diffusion, which is a form of steam distillation, but the steam is introduced at the top on to the material, rather from underneath, so this actually helps to increase the yield of the oil without affecting the quality, and actually shortens the process (so this is a better way than turning up the heat).
Sourcing essential oils is an art form
So, yes, you could make your own essential oils. But hopefully you can see how there are many, many factors that can affect the quality of essential oils. It is not just about growing a plant and distilling the oils, which many companies do.
To get the best quality oils it involves sourcing from all over the world, not growing all plants together in one farm. It involves using the knowledge and expertise of the artisan growers and distillers who have been producing essential oils for centuries in all regions of the world. It involves extensive testing to ensure the chemistry is just right, and scientific knowledge to know how that will exactly react and act on our bodies. It is why doTERRA can stand by its usage guidelines, including ingestion which is often criticised, because it knows every oil, and to ensure consistency, purity and potency, every single batch is tested – at the distillery before doTERRA takes it on, again in the bottling process where a sample is taken and stored so they have a sample from every batch, and then again by third parties to reaffirm that the previous 2 tests have been correct and everything is corroborated. This testing is expensive, and time-consuming, and the reality of it is that most companies do not test every batch. Some only test when they source the oil (or just go by the reports provided by the distillers or middlemen). Some test periodically, and some don’t test. Dr Pappas, a leading essential oil chemist, has a Facebook page where he exposes companies who mis-sell their oils as something they are not, whether that is because they contain synthetics, or cheaper, lower quality oils. I have also heard from an employee (biochemist in their testing facilities) of another well-known company accepting and still selling a poor quality Rose oil, because Rose is so expensive to produce, they couldn’t afford to waste it. So this is a company that does test their oils a lot, but decided to put out a crap product anyway!
How to test quality?
There are many tests that can be done to test quality – that is info for another post, because this one is already REALLY long! But you can watch a videos about all the testing methods doTERRA uses here.
You can also watch other videos on sourcing essential oils here and on doTERRA’s YouTube channel here, and doTERRA has their Source To You website where you can enter the batch number of any oil and pull up the test reports for that batch specifically. Love the transparency! If you have a bottle of doTERRA oil, the batch number is on the bottom, and you can check out the GC/MS test reports here.
So, now you all know some of the main reasons that I choose doTERRA over other companies. Some products are a bit pricier, but just as people are prepared to pay more for a better wine than for cheap plonk, so am I happy paying for a better quality, proven essential oil, than wasting my hard-earned cash on cheap crap that won’t do anything for me. I also think that consumers these days demand better quality from their products, and if you are using it on yourself and your precious children, you want the best, right?
Rant over. Enjoy!